Chi gung: the antidote to the monkey mind

Multi-tasking used to be thought of as a good thing; a skill to be proud of. And in a way, it is – with our mile-a-minute lifestyles, it’s useful to be able to recall whether you hit send on that all-important email to your colleague, put petrol in the car so you can get the kids to and from swimming class tonight and what you need to add to the online supermarket order to pull off a fancy lunch for the in-laws at the weekend. The trouble is, we become so hardwired for this ‘monkey mind’ style of thinking – that is, restless and unsettled – that it’s then hard to rein in our thoughts, even when life permits. Also, our hormones play a part – each time we tick off a task on our to-do list, we’re rewarded with a burst of the feel-good hormone dopamine (no wonder we’re addicted to doing 10 things at once).

We’d do well, however, to heed the words of the American neuroscientist Professor Earl Miller, who says that our brains are ‘not wired to multitask well…when people think they’re multi-tasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.’

In other words, even though you think (and it certainly feels as though) you’re getting more done, science shows that efficiency plummets – as does the quality of your work. Researchers at the University of London found that participants who multi-tasked while performing assignments that required a lot of concentration demonstrated a lowering in their IQ similar to those who are chronically sleep-deprived.

Which is why we could all use a little chi gung in our lives. Chi gung is an ancient Chinese health practice that combines flowing physical postures with breathing techniques and focused attention. The names itself refers to vital life force, or energy (‘chi’), while ‘gung’ means accomplishment or learning a skill. Together, they translate roughly as ‘cultivating vitality’. It’s a steadying practice that invites a calm energy into our lives, helping to quiet the mind and improve concentration. Studies have found that it boosts the immune system and strengthens the cardiovascular, lymphatic and digestive systems, too.

Chi gung is included on the Bryn Tanat Wellness programme for all these reasons and more: because can be adapted from simple forms to more complex, challenging styles, anyone can have a go, making it an inclusive practice that’s perfect for beginners. Our instructor, James Lanyon, who has been active in the martial and healing arts for forty years, credits the discipline with helping him recover from challenging health issues and giving him the energy to teach, look after two small boys, run an organic smallholding and renovate the family home (we think he might be onto something!) And while the slow, gentle movements that characterise most forms of chi gung may look easy enough, the ‘mindful intent’ and breathing exercises that go with them mean that it’s an immersive activity that has a near-miraculous effect on stress and high blood pressure. From a psychological point of view, devotees swear by its ability to boost mood and create a more positive outlook on life.

Quieting the internal chatter which plagues so many of us is an important step on any wellbeing journey. Chi gung helps us to find a place of peace, from which mental clarity and strength can be restored, and it’s our privilege to be able to share the benefits of this remarkable practice with our clients.